The Genre-Bending Sincere Silliness of ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ (1985) – Retro Review

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure lives rent-free in my brain. It’s a movie of images before it’s a movie of substance, but is substance really necessary when you’re having that much fun being silly? 

I’ve been watching a lot of these Retro Review films with my dad, who’s mostly seen the things that I haven’t. The difference here: I’ve seen Pee-wee’s Big Adventure six hundred thousand times, and my dad has fallen asleep to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure five-hundred-ninety-nine thousand times. It’s one of those things he introduced to me and my brother when we were kids, which was a mistake because we loved it so much. We watched the hell out of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It was a pleasant surprise to return to it as an adult and find its whimsy and merriment intact, just where I left it. 

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is just that: a big adventure, spanning a whole, wide country. Its colorful, frenetic energy and genre-hopping is the perfect thing to ensure a child watching will come out of it with a love and appreciation for dozens of types of movies. 

I think Pee-wee Herman is hilarious, and I think I think he’s hilarious because he’s one of the first hilarious things I was ever exposed to. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is first and foremost a coming-of-age story, an archetype automatically subverted by the fact that Pee-wee himself is a grown man doing child things. His voice, dress, and behavior are welcomed all over town and country, which makes the big adventure a fantasy, in a world more colorful and accepting than our own. 

In researching for this piece, I found out that the movie parodies Bicycle Thieves, described as an “Italian neorealist drama.” I watched Bicycle Thieves for a class in college; I can’t call myself an expert on the film, or on Italian neorealist drama, but I remember talking a lot about Bicycle Thieves’ use of amateur actors to depict the actual poor and working class. It would be hard to argue there’s anything realistic about the world of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but there aren’t any “movie stars” in the main narrative, and everyone takes Pee-wee and his life and routine very seriously. So: maybe we can even define the movie as well-dignified realism in a fantasy world. 

The movie veers into romance, with Pee-wee’s short affairs with Simone the waitress and Dottie the bike store associate. It’s a romantic drama, with Simone’s jealous boyfriend Andy attempting to kill Pee-wee for spending time with her. It’s a romantic comedy, with will-they-or-won’t they tropes employed between Pee-wee and Dottie. Every bit of both of these relationships is sweet and drives the plot — what little plot there is — forward smoothly. 

And then it’s a horror movie! You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who saw this movie as young as I was the first time I saw it who is not also terrified of Large Marge. Pee-wee’s encounters with Madame Ruby bring heightened, welcome supernatural elements into the story and give Pee-wee his higher purpose. 

That’s to say nothing of the moments of this movie that are a Western in the basement of the Alamo, or an action-adventure sequence featuring a burning pet store. It’s also a biker flick and a dance film in the same breath. More than anything, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a movie that loves movies. Disparate plot elements and genres and dramas come together in the big finale, when we watch a big, Hollywood movie made out of Pee-wee’s story starring actual movie stars James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild that can’t possibly encompass the reality of everything we’ve just witnessed. Truth is stranger than fiction, but Pee-wee Herman is stranger than truth. 

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